I have preached caution about the use of joint tenancies as an estate-planning tool to transfer wealth often from a parent to a child, or sometimes to some other relative or friend. One of the first blog posts I wrote back in September, 2005, was entitled “Six Potential Pitfalls Parents Should Consider Before Transferring Real Estate Into a Joint Tenancy with Their Children.” There are in fact more than six, and I won’t repeat them all here. Instead I want to focus on how to properly document a transfer into a joint tenancy when the transfer is done as part of an estate plan.
Usually when I write about lawsuits concerning either land held in a joint tenancy, or joint bank or investment accounts, the problem is that the person who made the transfer or contributed the funds did not clearly document her intent at the time of the transfer. There is a presumption that when Mary transfers to her house into a joint tenancy with her daughter Jane for free, she does not intend to make a gift, and that Jane holds her interest on trust for Mary, and for Mary’s estate when Mary dies. This is called the presumption of resulting trust. But it is just a presumption, and there may be evidence that Mary intended to make a gift, rebutting the presumption. Disputes may arise in at least a couple of different circumstances. Mary and Jane have a falling out, Mary sues Jane for the title back, and Jane claims ownership of a half interest on the basis that Mary did intend a gift when she transferred the title. The second, and more common, kind of dispute occurs after Mary’s death. Jane claims the house by right of survivorship as the surviving joint tenant. Her brother Mark, who is also a beneficiary of Mary’s will says that Mary intended for Jane to share the house with Mark in accordance with the distribution in Mary’s will. Mark sues, claiming that Jane holds title to the house on trust for Mary’s estate.
The cases come down to a search for Mary’s actual intent. All too often in those cases that go to trial, the lawyer or notary has not documented his or her meeting with Mary very well. This is not to suggest that the majority of lawyers and notaries do a poor job documenting their files, but usually when the file is well documented, the dispute is resolved well before trial. In the case of joint accounts, lawyers are generally not involved in setting up the account, and unfortunately legal advice is sometimes given by well intentioned, but ill-informed employees of financial institutions without legal training. The only documentation is often the financial institution’s forms which do not illuminate the issue well.
Because disputes involving well-documented transfers of title into joint tenancy usually do not make it to trial, it is rare, but refreshing to see a case in which the lawyer handling the transfer did an excellent job of documenting the transaction and the transferor’s intentions.
Carvel Weaver transferred most of his financial assets into joint accounts with his cousin Vivian Storey and transferred title to his home on Hornby Island into a joint tenancy with her. He made a will in which he left his three surviving children, $5000 each, and Ms. Storey the residue of his estate.
After his death on July 24, 2014, two of his children sued to vary his will on the basis that he had not made adequate provision for them. They also made other claims in respect of his assets, including a claim that Ms. Storey holds the Hornby Island property and other assets on a resulting trust for their father’s estate. This is important because if they were successful and the assets form part of his estate, then the court may award them a share if they are successful in their wills variation claim. But if Ms. Storey is entitled to retain the assets as the surviving joint tenant, then British Columbia’s wills variation legislation does not permit the court to vary the disposition of assets that are not part of the estate, and do not pass under the will.
Ms. Storey brought an application to court to determine whether Carvel Weaver intended to make a gift of the right of survivorship of the Hornby property and other assets to her, or whether she does hold these assets on trust for his estate. In Weaver v. Weaver Estate, 2019 BCSC 132, Madam Justice Horsman held that Carvel Weaver did intend to make a gift of the right of survivorship, and that Ms. Storey does not hold the assets in trust for his estate. The key to the decision was the evidence of Carvel Weaver’s estate-planning lawyer, Andrea Rowe, and the documents she created to implement his estate plan.
Ms. Rowe met with Carvel Weaver alone to take his estate-planning instructions. He told her that he wanted to leave each of his children $5000 and the rest of his wealth to Ms. Storey. Ms. Rowe explained to him that his children could apply to vary his will. He decided to use jointures as a method for passing his wealth to Ms. Storey outside of his estate. Ms. Rowe prepared a transfer document to transfer the Hornby property into both Mr. Weaver and Ms. Storey’s names as joint tenants. Ms. Rowe registered the transfer at the Land Title Office. Fortunately for Ms. Storey, Ms. Rowe also created a number of other documents setting out the intention. These include, a Deed of Gift and Statutory Declaration, as well as a power of attorney for Ms. Storey to sign allowing Carvel Weaver to deal with the title to the Hornby property as well as a transfer of the title back to him.
I will quote from some of the documents below, but the essential nature of the plan was that on the one hand, Carvel Weaver retained control over the Horny property during his lifetime. It was clear that for as long as he lived, Ms. Storey’s interest was limited to the title, and the right of survivorship. If he wanted to take back title or sell the property, he could do so without Ms. Storey having to sign anything further. Because her interest was limited, he could change his mind. On the other hand, it was also clear that he intended to give her the right of survivorship so that if he died before her, she became the full owner of the property, and did not hold it on a resulting trust for his estate.
Madam Justice Horseman quoted parts of the Deed of Gift and Statutory Declaration in her decision. The recitals from the Deed of Gift are as follows:
1. Carvel hereby transfers the Land to himself and Vivian as joint tenants and in so doing makes a gift of the right of survivorship but no transfer of the beneficial ownership.
2. Carvel will sign all further documents and instruments as may be required to effect this transfer (including a Form A Transfer and Property Transfer Tax Form).
3. Carvel and Vivian will sign a Power of Attorney by Vivian in favour of Carvel so that Carvel may deal with the Land, unilaterally.
4. Vivian will sign a Form A Transfer transferring the Land to Carvel to be held by Carvel.
5. This Deed of Gift constitutes the legal transfer of the Land by Carvel to Carvel and Vivian as joint tenants. By signing this Deed of Gift, Vivian acknowledges the limited interest being transferred to her.
The Statutory Declaration included the following paragraphs:
3. Prior to making this decision, I was advised about the difference between an outright gift, creating a tenancy in common, creating a joint tenancy to transfer the right of survivorship (only) and making a gift under my Will.
4. I chose joint tenancy to grant the right of survivorship because I want Vivian to be able to deal with my Home immediately after my death and I do not want my Home to form part of my estate. Still, I do not intend to grant any present beneficial interest in my Home to Vivian (other than the right of survivorship).
. . . .
6. I have required, as a condition of the transfers described above, that Vivian
a. grant me a limited enduring Power of Attorney so that I may deal with my Home as I decide in my absolute discretion and without interference from Vivian; and
b. enter into a Bare Trust Agreement setting out that any interest Vivian may have in the home during my lifetime, other than the right of survivorship, is held by Vivian for my benefit.
Ms. Rowe also drafted a provision for Carvel Weaver’s will, further confirming his intent that assets including his bank accounts held jointly with Ms. Storey were to pass absolutely to her, and that she would not hold her interest on trust for his estate. The provision reads:
I declare that I am aware of the legal significance of the Right of Survivorship as it pertains to joint assets. I declare that any real estate or other assets (for instance, bank accounts) which are owned jointly with Vivian are deliberately held as such so that the Right of Survivorship will apply in the event of my death so that if Vivian survives me, she will own such assets, absolutely, and not on any resulting trust for my estate.
There are two other points that I think important. The lawyer met alone with her client in this case, and the evidence indicates that she explained the documents to him. It is important for a lawyer to make sure that the instructions she receives reflect the client’s wishes, which is why it is important to meet alone when taking instructions, and that the client understands the nature and effect of the documents he is signing (even if not all of the technical language).
I still always urge caution in using joint ownership to transfer wealth on death, but when it makes sense to do so, then intent must be clearly documented. There is more than one way of doing so, but with a significant asset such as a house, this level of documentation is often required to protect the client and the estate plan.
I should note that the decision I have discussed only dealt with one aspect of the children’s claims. They have made other claims which were set for trial. It is possible that they may prevail on some other basis.